Was it anti-Semitism when Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote on Twitter that the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, pays politicians to support the Jewish state? That depends on whether it was mostly malice or simply ignorance that motivated her.
The Minnesota Democrat, one of only two Muslim women in Congress, apologized and said she is “grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”
She might have learned that it is insulting and racist to portray Jews as people who achieve their goals by amassing money and using it to buy influence. On the other hand, perhaps all Omar has learned is that it is dangerous in American politics to speak ill of AIPAC.
The fact is that the lobby group does not make any political contributions. Yet it is undeniable that many members of AIPAC are significant players in the world of campaign donations. When they speak privately about which candidates they support, almost always based on face-to-face meetings, they do not even hint that they are buying anyone’s affection. They believe they are rewarding and showing approval for politicians who share their concern for the safety and success of Israel — as an important ally of the United States.
Perhaps Omar is unaware of how it works. Like many neophytes in Congress, she might wish that money did not play such a huge role in the life to which they have been elected. To keep their jobs, they have to raise campaign dollars.
Perhaps only a cynic would note that having engaged in battle with AIPAC and pro-Israel Americans, even though this round ended with her apology, Omar is likely to gain a flood of political contributions. The donors will likely include anti-Semites, anti-Zionists, citizens who want to reduce the power of large lobby groups, and folks who just plain adore Omar for being different. That is part of American politics. A House member is in the headlines, and she will have no shortage of detractors and admirers.
Democrats, especially the more progressive ones, were very proud of their party’s diversity when Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, won their elections in November. Some supporters of Israel, however, are reflexively suspicious of Muslims, and they have highlighted what they consider hostile statements by the two new legislators.
Yet it would be absurd to expect that women who grew up in Somali or Palestinian immigrant communities, who ordinarily have no affinity for Israel, would think favorably of that country. Omar, who is 37 and came to America as a refugee from Somalia in her early teens, indicates a willingness to engage in respectful dialogue and denounces prejudice by saying that she has been a victim of it.
Even if Omar sticks with her opinions, including support for the discriminatory double-standard of boycotting Israel, there are many traditional Democrats who are not terribly concerned. They acknowledge that a new generation naturally has different views and interests, adding that there is nothing to fear if Omar, on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is “anti-Israel.” She is only one out of more than a dozen Democrats on the panel, and its chairman is the proudly pro-Israel Eliot Engel of New York.
It is understandable that with a clear increase in anti-Semitic incidents and rhetoric, many people of goodwill — not only Jews — are on the lookout for malignant words, especially in iconic institutions such as the U.S. Congress, lest the cancer of intolerance and hatred continue to grow.
Dan Raviv is senior Washington correspondent of i24News and author of “Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”